Adventures on the Wine Trail
The Great Northern Wine Country Tour, Summer 2012. Part 3: The Finger Lakes, New York
The Great Northern Wine Country Tour, Summer 2012. Part 2: Niagara Peninsula, Ontario
The Great Northern Wine Country Tour, Summer 2012. Part 1: Northern Michigan
Rocky Mountain High: Wine Regions of Colorado, June 2006
The German Wine Press Trip, July 2006
The Great Northern Wine Country Tour, Summer 2012. Part 3: The Finger Lakes, New York
The Finger Lakes has arguably the most recognizable terroir of fine wine regions in the East, and you can see it across grape varieties and even species; the bright fruit, crystal-clear acidity and lingering fresh finish. Red Bordeaux wines made in the Finger Lakes taste quite different from those on Long Island’s East End, and share a cool climate brilliance making them close in style to wines from the Niagara Peninsula of Ontario, the Lake Erie region of Ohio, and Michigan. The Finger Lakes have diverse soils and topography, and the local climate the lakes grows cooler (during the growing season) as you move from east to west, giving a higher acid profile to wines from Canandaigua and Keuka Lakes than even those of Seneca and Cayuga. The region grows native, French hybrid, Cornell hybrid, and vinifera varieties, and while Riesling has established itself as the world-class premier grape of the region’s reputation, new wines and wineries continue to pop up like mushrooms around the region. On top of it all, the Finger Lakes offers great natural beauty in two of three seasons (July and August, the other season being winter!).
Having lived and worked in the region for nearly two years, I like to return to visit friends and catch up on the wine scene which is constantly evolving. Now, you not only find new wineries and wines, but cideries, breweries and distilleries and even a “cheese trail”, almost none of which was in evidence a decade ago.
I visited for a week in late July. To keep this reasonably short and focused I’ll have to leave out mention of sailing on Cayuga Lake with my good friend Martha Gioumousis and the wines we drank, and other colorful travel anecdotes like my car needing a “throttle position sensor”, and just focus on the highlights; good wineries and their wines.
There aren’t many wineries on the east side of Cayuga Lake, but I visited two; Heart and Hands, and Treleavan/King Ferry. Heart and Hands (named for the Irish claddagh symbol of two hands creating a heart shape) is owned by Tom and Susan Higgins and is a small (2,000 case) boutique winery making wines exclusively from riesling and pinot noir. The vineyard is cultivated following the Cornell’s Vineyard Sustainability Program and as close to organically as feasible. The wines are bright, fresh and clean.
Heart & Hands Polarity 2011: this wine is a still blanc de noirs made from a champagne clone of pinot noir, barrel fermented in Francois Ferrer oak and aged sur-lie. This was one of the most fun, original and stylish wines I tasted on my Great Northern Tour of 2012. The nose was clean with lemony, yeasty hints and citrus. On the palate, the wine was round yet with firm and bright acidity, much like a pinot gris reserve with zesty grapefruit flavors and nice mid-palate fleshiness. A great seafood wine, original and stylish.
Heart & Hands Reserve Riesling 2011: Just 102 cases made, mostly from Nutt Road on west Seneca Lake. Nose: brilliant aromas of pineapple, mango, passionfruit, white peach and jasmine. Palate: round and smooth, builds slowly with great concentration; elegantly balanced and off-dry (1.2% r.s.)
King Ferry/Treleavan Vineyards has a long-standing reputation for fine dry Riesling but also for oaked chardonnay and meritage. Proprietor Peter Staltonstall is pouring his wines in New York City’s Union Station farmer’s market every Saturday and has his wines in 14 other farmer’s markets.
King Ferry semi-dry Riesling 2011: lime and white flowers on the nose, also white peach. On the palate, huge intensity of peach and white fruits with red apple, zesty and bright with a long finish.
King Ferry late harvest vignoles 2007: Wow! A riot of apricots and kumquats and tangerines on the nose. Palate: mellow, with acid fully tamed and integrated, but zesty and spicy. Excellent to match with Thanksgiving or Christmas desserts.
EAST SENECA LAKE: HECTOR
This is the largest and deepest of the Finger Lakes and also has more wineries than the other adjacent lakes. I used to live in Caywood on the east/central part of the Lake, and it’s amazing to see how the number of wineries, restaurants, distilleries, cheese makers, breweries etc. has grown since I left 11 years ago.
Damiani Vineyards south of Hector is fairly new, and makes a wide range of wines with consistent high quality.
Damiani dry Gewurztraminer 2010: HUGE floral nose, like an actual bouquet! Mostly rosewater with nice spice notes. Palate: excellent varietal character, with rosewater, lychee and spice; although dry, the alcohol isn’t too high and flavors are bright but elegant.
Damiani Vineyards Pinot Noir Sunrise Hill Vineyard 2010: Nose: impressively elegant with cherry and forest floor notes, and fresh red berries. Palate: spicy, with great fruit/acid integration without big oak, and a fine fresh finish.
Damiani Vineyards Syrah Reserve Estate 2010: A real treat! Color: almost opaque, with a vibrant violet hue. Nose: wow! Classic markers of meaty, smoky bacon, deep plum and white pepper notes. Palate: a silky texture with vibrant fruit/acid balance ; the fruit is still a bit closed, but wonderfully concentrated, rich and vibrant with red and black cherry with tart acidity, then smooth tannins. This needs 2-4 years of aging but will last another decade.
Atwater Vineyards in Hector has one of the best views in the region with a deck looking out on Seneca Lake below to the west. Winemaker Vinny Aliperti has been winning awards here for a decade under the direction of owner Ted Marks. Atwater has made a reputation for reds as well as Riesling. In 2012, they blew away the rest of the state by cleaning up at the New York Wine and Food Classic, winning three Best of Class awards for sparkling wine (Atwater Estate Vineyards 2008 Cuvee Brut), Vinifera White Blend (Atwater Estate Vineyards 2011 Riewurz) and Vinifera Red Blend for Atwater Estate Vineyards 2010 “Big Blend.” On top of winning other medals in this year’s Classic, their dessert-style Riesling, “Celsius” 2010, won Best Dessert Wine from the New York Cork Report for 2011.
Atwater 2008 Cuvée Brut: 2/3 pinot noir, 1/3 chardonnay estate. Two and a half years en tirage (industry standard in Champagne is three). Very intense mousse. Nose: classically toasty, with nice cherry notes, hints of smoky truffle. Palate: vibrant, lemony and creamy, then clean lemon/citrus finish. Very vibrant and zesty and classy. (Note: tasted a month before the NY Classic competition).
Atwater Gewurztraminer 2010: Nose is classic, bursting with lychee, rosewater and spice. On the palate, wow! Vibrant, fresh, juicy and intensely fruity but balanced with aromas, fruit and alcohol and no bitterness, with a vibrant, fresh finish.
Atwater Estate Syrah 2010: The first attempt at this wine is impressive. Color is opaque, with vibrant violet hue. Nose is spicy with loads of plum, white and black pepper, allspice and smoky bacon. On the palate, very smooth, then packed with juicy plum, pepper and spice, zesty and focused with a fine spicy finish, clean and bright. Oak is only 10% new, the rest neutral (all Hungarian). Very promising but needs 2-5 years.
Red Newt Cellars in Hector has been in the forefront of showcasing fine local food along with top local wines in their bistro, including those of neighboring wineries. Despite the tragic death of bistro chef Deb Whiting last year, the bistro and establishment continue carrying on what she and surviving husband and winemaker Dave Whiting began. In addition to his own label wines, Dave is one of the trio of Seneca Lake winemakers who jointly make “Tierce”, a stelvin-finished reserve Riesling that each contributes 1/3 of the wine for.
Red Newt Cellars Dry Riesling Reserve 2010: Nose of cilantro and mineral notes with loads of lime. On the palate, wow! Very vibrant and racy, with clean lemon/lime flavors. Brilliant but still tight and young; needs time.
Red Newt Cellars Gewurztraminer Curry Creek Vineyard 2008: Nose: lovely classic Alsatian style; lychee with apricot and a hint of bottle age. On the palate, the alcohol is high (14.7%) but the wine is concentrated with spicy apricot/grapefruit nuances; very stylish and holding well.
WEST SENECA LAKE: DRESDEN
Driving from Keuka Lake through Penn Yan, I came to the Dresden district of west Seneca Lake and visited three leading wineries; Fox Run Vineyards, Red Tail Ridge and Anthony Road Vineyards. Two of the three were featured in a cover story I wrote for an industry trade magazine.
Fox Run Vineyards deftly balances a product line ranging from the semi-sweet Ruby Vixen and Arctic Fox to eight dry red vinifera reds, to reserve Riesling retailing for $30. Exquisite port-style wines are a niche specialty, and winemaker Peter Bell, widely respected in the industry, is another of the troika of winemakers on Seneca Lake making the dry Riesling reserve Tierce. They also make a Geology series of Rieslings (see earlier blog entry). Proprietor Scott Osborn has impressed the wine buyers of Wegmans, so Virginians can look for his wines at in-state Wegmans stores.
Fox Run Meritage 2010: Blend is 71% merlot, 29% cabernet sauvignon. Nose: intense and spicy with lots of cassis and black fruits and some earth tones. Palate: juicy, then complex and spicy but elegantly balanced showing clean Finger Lakes acidity. Stylish ($40)
Fox Run Reserve Riesling 2011 (Seneca Lake appellation). Nose: jasmine hints, then lively peach/apple on the palate, nice juicy fruit/acid balance. $30, 400 cases made.
Fox Run Hedonia NV A fun and fascinating new product, this is a white port made from traminette, 20% alcohol and 9% residual sugar, marketed as a cocktail or sparkling wine additive for the trendy club set in the City. Nose: floral, spicy grapefruit. Palate: elevated alcohol but still delicately fruity, then vibrant grapefruit, tangerine and hints of pineapple; stylish. As an interesting aside, the label was modeled on Channel No. 5, and was to be called “Fermentation”, but the TTB objected, despite the fact that the product is the result of same.
Fox Run Ruby Port NV: Aged two years in neutral oak, longer than most domestic port-style wines. A blend of merlot, the two cabernets and lemberber. Nose: spicy, clean with dried apricots and nuts. Palate: at first round and juicy, then a fat mid-palate with lovely spice, dried fruits and nuts; seems halfway to a tawny already. Much better quality than with most domestic ruby ports. Alcohol: 20%
A memorable and special part of this adventure on the wine road was meeting Peter Bell in his winery office/lab, and with my companion Paul Geisz, being invited to taste and write comments to share, with the separate components of Fox Run’s tawny port project. In a corner of the winery is a “hot house” shed where about ten barrels of port components are undergoing what Peter calls “tawnification” where the fresh fruit of table wine is slowly transformed into dried fruits, nuts, spices and Christmas pudding-like aromas and flavors, with fat figgy or lean rapier-like textures.
Notes from my favorite component read, “Nose like Fonseca’s Bin #27: loads of ripe damson plum with exotic spice. Palate: round, plump, juicy plum, then a finely balanced spiciness of cardamom. Should be an essential blending component.” Another I admired read “Nose very estery, fine clean spicy esters. Palate: deeply fruity, fire and lots of pepper and spice; very complex and stylish.”
I felt honored to be asked to contribute my observations as Peter and his assistant winemaker Tricia Renshaw weighed their final blending decisions prior to harvest.
RED TAIL RIDGE VINEYARDS
Formerly from California, the husband/wife team Nancy Ireland and Mike Schnelle realized their money would go much further towards buying land for their own vineyard in the Finger Lakes than in the North Coast, so Nancy left Gallo in 2005 where she was Vice President of Research and Development to start their dream vineyard and winery on west Seneca Lake just south of Fox Run Vineyards. At the road, you see their banners and the signature logo of a red-tailed hawk (the vineyard was named for two pairs of red-tailed hawks nesting on the property), but the winery isn’t visible from the road; you have to drive through the vineyard (20 acres total) to reach the “first LEED-certified gold winery in New York”, demonstrating that they put the vineyard first. They also have a strong emphasis on sustainability and low environmental impact.
They grow mostly riesling, chardonnay and pinot noir, but have championed obscure red vinifera varieties like teroldego and lagrein from Italy and dornfelder and blaufränkisch a k a lemberger from Germany. Their 2007 pinot noir I had recently was one of the best and most prototypical American pinot noirs I’ve tasted.
Red Tail Ridge Dry Rosé 2011 (all pinot noir). 24 hours of skin contact. Nose: wonderfully vibrant, full of red cherries. Palate: the same, with zesty lively fruit but not tart, just ripe and zesty.
Red Tail Ridge Semi-Dry Riesling 2010: 1.5% residual sugar. Nose: focused jasmine and red apple and peach. Palate: white flowers, peach and apricot, vibrant acidity, excellent fruit/acid balance with clean finish.
Red Tail Ridge 2010 Pinot Noir Estate, Winemaker’s Selection: From four barrels of a blend of clones Nancy found distinctive. Nose: subtle cherry fruit and baking spices. Palate: spicy intensity, oak and spice dominant, fruit will emerge in a year but still closed; shows intensity and promise.
Anthony Road Wine Company has gained increasing notoriety in the last decade since German-born Johannes Reinhardt became winemaker, bringing the traditional late harvest picking and winemaking techniques for making amazing dessert wines called “trockenbeeren” (German for “dried berries”) from riesling and vignoles, as well as making reserve-style dry chardonnay and riesling; Johannes is the third member of the “Tierce” Riesling troika, and in 2009 Anthony Road won the Governor’s Cup award for their 2008 semi-dry riesling. Like Peter Bell at Fox Run, he’s also making a blend of cabernet franc and lemberger that’s a welcome addition to the red wine line. A “Devonian” label showing a fossilized snail gives you off-dry red and white blends that are fun, reasonable and quaffable.
Anthony Road Gewurztraminer 2010: Ripe and rich with lots of spice and bright fruit, juicy and well-balanced.
Anthony Road Cabernet Franc/Lemberger 2010: An original, even serious wine, with black cherries and berries, smoky spiciness and pepper. Needs more time but is a good interpretation of Finger Lakes in a new way with red grapes that play well together.
Anthony Road Devonian Red 2010: Pretty much the same flavors as the cabernet franc/lemberger, but with less oak aging and a slight sweetness in the finish. Easy to quaff, very versatile and half the price of the varietal blend ($9.99)
Anthony Road Vignoles M-RS Selection 2006: a real gem; bottle-aged so the high acid is mellowed with the smoky pineapple fruit. Long tingling finish. Great with Thanksgiving dessert or stilton cheese. ($45/375 ml)
EAST KEUKA LAKE
In 2011 I visited many more wineries but lost my notes. I enjoyed wines from Keuka Overlook, Keuka Springs, Rooster Hill, Dr. Frank Vinifera Cellars, and Hunt Country Vineyards.
This trip, car trouble limited my time on Keuka Lake but I was glad to return to Ravines Cellars in the town of Keuka, domain of Morten Hallgren. Trained in France with a degree from the national agricultural institute in Montpelier and experience working at Dr. Frank Cellars, Morten’s first vintage was in 2002, when his dry riesling made an impressive showing in competitions. The winery is named for the deep ravines cut in the shale by streams over the centuries. Morton’s chef wife Lisa makes food pairings to accompany the wines. The tasting room looks right out over Keuka Lake to the west, and it’s fun to sip the wines and contemplate the region’s terroir while gazing at the lake.
Ravines Sauvignon Blanc 2011: Nose of zesty bright lemon and spicy prickly pear. Palate: broad, solid pear fruit and citrus; nice varietal typicity and good fruit/acid balance.
Ravines Chardonnay 2010: Morton dries eight percent of the chardonnay grapes on racks after picking, to increase the intensity of flavor, and it seems to work very well. The nose is very Burgundian, with lemon zestiness balanced with hazelnut and almond hints. Palate: buttery, but balanced by firm acid and great integration with a clean, fresh finish; classy and elegant.
Ravines Meritage 2008: A blend of cabernet sauvignon (60%), cabernet franc (30%) and merlot (10%). Solid ruby color. Nose; lovely black fruits and spice, hint of chocolate. Palate: layered, smooth with well-integrated fruit and oak, not too acidic, mellow finish. Has come together well with some bottle age.
WEST KEUKA LAKE: Heron Hill Winery
Heron Hill could be called “Xanadu on Keuka Lake”, due to the distinctive and fantastical winery design that combines neoclassicism with “Lost Horizon.” Heron Hill Winery has been operating for 35 years and owner John Ingle has his own eponymous vineyard on Canandaigua Lake, and was farming sustainably decades before it became trendy in the wine industry. Winemaker and French native Bernard Cannac has been working at Heron Hill for two years now, and worked for other Eastern wineries most of the past decade.
I visited Heron Hill in July on the day when they had a launch party for the new labeling of their “classic” line of flagship varietals for the Finger Lakes. All are now packaged with a Stelvin closure and feature a silhouette of a heron, but the heron is colored differently for each varietal in the series.
Heron Hill Classic Dry Riesling 2011: Although it’s crisp and dry, this riesling has a broad mid-palate with mineral and lemongrass hints and apple flavors and is drinking well now; more accessible and full-flavored than most 2011 rieslings.
Heron Hill Classic Muscat 2011: Actually, this is valvin muscat, the new hybrid of muscat and French hybrid parentage recently released from Cornell’s grape breeding program. Here you have all the delicate perfumed muscat aromas you want from vinifera, and the acid is also characteristically in balance, but this grape is cold-hardy and produces wine of beautiful balance. This wine is aromatic with tropical fruits of pineapple, mango and tangerine. On the palate, the bright tropical fruits are balanced with vibrant acidity and moderate sweetness. Fun and lively!
SYRACUSE/CAZENOVIA LAKE: Owera Vineyards
Owera Vineyards is not in the Finger Lakes AVA, but they make some wonderful wines using grapes from Finger Lakes vineyards. They’re located on the northwest corner of Cazenovia Lake near Syracuse. Their own vines of cold-hardy Minnesota hybrids (frontenac gris and Marquette) have reached mature production this year. Winemaker is the talented riesling specialist Martha Gioumousis (disclosure: a friend) who won the New York Governor’s Cup for Hosmer Vineyards with a dry riesling a decade ago.
Owera Dry Riesling 2011, Finger Lakes
Nose: ripe red apple and wet slate with a hint of jasmine. Palate: Juicy ripe red apple, full round texture, crisp and refreshingly dry but with satisfyingly ripe fruit. A great food wine, this will age gracefully.
Owera Reserve Riesling 2011, Finger Lakes, Hobbit Hollow Vineyard; Wine of the Visit ****
One of my fun discoveries of this trip is the Hobbit Hollow Vineyard growing top riesling on Skaneatelas Lake, that sells fruit to Owara and other local wineries making top riesling, like Heart & Hands.
Something about this vineyard shows great potential for riesling from Skaneatelas Lake. This wine has depth, richness and intensity that is compelling. On the nose, I’m struck with a complex blend of white flowers, red apple, ripe peach and even tropical fruit; mango and cantelope.
On the palate, this wine has a dense, layered intensity that really takes you. An explosion of ripe tropical fruit (pineapple, and mango) is balanced with focused peach/apricot flavors. The lushness of the flavors and the depth and intensity of the texture taper to a very long, lingering finish with nice spice nuances. This wine could put Skaneatelas Lake and Hobbit Hollow Vineyard on the world riesling map, and should win much acclaim for Owera. Despite the stunning syrah from Damiani and many other great wines, this was the star wine of my visit to the Finger Lakes this year. Hats off to the grower and winemaker!
The Great Northern Wine Country Tour, Summer 2012. Part 2: Niagara Peninsula, Ontario
I guess I could call this entry the Great White North Country Tasting, eh? But then you’d tell me, “Oh, take off!”
The third week of July, I drove through miles of highway towers carrying electric power lines in every visible direction from Niagara Falls, where a century ago, Buffalo NY was the trendiest city in the U.S.(!) I am not making this up (but it was a century ago). For example, in 1881, Buffalo was the first U.S. city that employed electric street lights, and in 1896 for the next 16 years, the Ellicott Square Building was the largest office building in the world.
Crossing the Peace Bridge and the Niagara River, I entered the Niagara Peninsula of Ontario where it seemed like you could Live Large by driving at 100, until you read the fine print and realized you were now in the World Outside the U.S. and this was kilometers/hour, not MPH.
Soon, on the Queen Elizabeth Way (QEW) you arrive at the city of St. Catharines, with options to head north to the quaint town of Niagara-on-the-Lake.
After meeting with Linda Watts of the Wine Council of Ontario and Dr. Andy Reynolds, head of Brock University’s Cool Climate Oenology and Viticulture Institute, I wasted no time in striking out (or “oot” as they say there) for local wineries.
My first stop was Vineland Estate near the town of Jordan, which introduced the 21-B clone of Riesling to Canada. In both Ontario and British Columbia, almost all Rieslings today are based on this clone brought from the St. Urbanshoff winery in Germany’s Mosel Valley (from row 21-B, actually). It makes a racy, high acid wine with lots of green apple and mineral tones.
My favorite wines were the 2007 merlot, which was mature, elegant and round, with briar fruit and herb nuances and a crisp finish, and the 2009 sauvignon blanc. This was a high acid, racy lemon citrus creature that could put most Loire Valley and Marlborough sauvignon blancs to shame. The minerality and intensity of the wine after three years was impressive, and it can last a few more years.
Next was Henry of Pelham Vineyards, ably run by the Speck Brothers. Henry of Pelham is known for its elegant (!) baco noir, chardonnay and many rieslings. I’ve been following this winery for a decade,and devoted a couple of hours going through their entire product line, and it was worth it.
I’m not a big chardonnay fan but these were some of the best I’ve had in the last few years from the same winery. I tasted the ’10 unoaked, (firm acid, fine apple fruit core, slight roundness on the fresh palate); the Speck Family Reserve ’09, Short Hills Bench VQA (estate grown, select vines) with stylish Burgundian butterscotch, nuttiness and lemon/mineral notes; and the Family Estate barrel fermented chardonnay 2010 Short Hills Bench VQA (creamy lemon and mineral nose, rich but balanced palate, fresh fruit and no oakiness). All three chardonnays were elegant and made to last 10-15 years.
I took pages of notes on the many fines wines from this family-owned winery, but will summarize my favorites for brevity and focus.
- Family Estate pinot blanc 2011: bright lemon citrus with a hint of cantaloupe. On the palate, creamy lemon with hints of peach, fruit juicy and firm.
- Speck Family Riesling (Short Hills Bench VQA) 2008: On the nose, wow! Lots of wet flinty slate, lemon/lime peel and white peach. On the palate, huge minerality, white peach, red apple and great fruit/acid balance; classic complexity.
- Family Reserve Gamay 2010 Short Hills Bench: huge loads of red berries, minerals and white pepper on the nose. On the palate, bright, zesty riot of raspberries with firm acidity.
- Riesling Icewine 2008: on the nose, brilliant citrus and passionfruit. On the palate, creamy citrus and passionfruit with peach/apricot, juicy and high acid but mellow and balanced.
Cave Spring Vineyards in Jordan is another of my favorite Niagara Peninsula wineries. Aside from Riesling, they specialize in gamay noir and pinot noir for reds. They also have Niagara sub-appellation designations on many of their wines.
I’ve always been a fan of Cave Spring’s Loire-style chenin blanc, but was saddened to hear that the 2009 vintage of that variety will be their last; winter toll has made its cultivation unprofitable use of vineyard space. That final vintage, while it lasts, is wonderful.
CSV 2009 Chenin Blanc estate Beamsville Bench VQA: great tangerine and orange blossom aromatics, followed by like flavors on the palate with excellent fruit/acid balance; loads of kumquat, tangering fruit and fine dancing acidity over a layer of semi-dry, thick chenin texture. Exotic and intriguing. Perfect for Asian/fusion cuisine.
Other top CSV wines for me:
- 2010 Riesling Dolomite, Niagara Peninsula VQA: Nose: a racy lime, peach and mineral quality. On the palate, racy, green and red apple and peach, firm and high acid, great concentration and length. 1.5% R.S.
- 2010 Riesling estate Beamsville Bench VQA: Nose: wow ! Intense tight and focused lemon/mineral intensity, in an Austrian style. On the palate, brilliant; light citrus/mineral with fine length, excellent balance.
- Estate Riesling 2008 CSV Beamsville Bench VQA: Brilliant lemon/lime acidity, only slight hint of petrol but still racy, a good Austrian style. Palate: some age but great lemon/mineral and light petrol and cream elements, fine acidity and length. Just starting to mature; world-class.
- Gewurztraminer estate Beamsville Bench VQA 2011: Nose: brilliant tangerine rind and white flowers. Palate: spicy, zesty, round but firm acid and well-balanced; a brilliant gewurz!
- Merlot 2008 Niagara Escarpment VQA: Very classic Old World style and vintage-driven, with mineral, spice and cherry/pepper aromas and flavors. Smooth and clean, reflecting fine vintage character and minimal interventionist oak.
- 2007 Pinot Noir Estate Beamsville Bench VQA: Mature and intriguing. Nose of exotic spice; cardamom and allspice, with ripe cherries and Cordovan leather with a hint of rubbed sage and polished mahogany. Palate: vibrant, ripe cherry and burnished oak, with hints of forest floor and morel mushrooms. Reminiscent of a premier cru from the Cote de Beaune such as Pernand Vergelleses.
On Cherry Avenue between Beamsville and Vineland on the Niagara Escarpment is a truly inspiring and fairly new operation called Tawes Winery, recommended to me by Canadian wine educator and fellow editor of the Oxford Companion to the Wines of North America Linda Bramble. It’s not uncommon on the Niagara Peninsula to find wineries with very contemporary floor-to-ceiling glass walls, but it’s another to see, through the interior glass wall of the tasting room, a 3-storey cascade of gravity-flow processing features. On the top level there are eight large ( ) upright French oak tanks. It’s refreshing to see when no holds have been barred for quality in the wine, on the processing and not just the marketing level. In 2010 and 2011, Tawes was named the Best Winery in Canada, and they are both biodynamic and organically certified, and typically crop at a low 1.5-2.5 tons per acre, with green harvest and shoot thinning.
The wines show all this commitment. For people who doubt the validity of biodynamic certification, I tell them it’s like pornography; I can’t define or quantify it, but I know it when I see it. In the case of wine, I “see” it in how biodynamic wines tend to manifest an extra dimension of flavor and texture that conventional wines just don’t have. It’s like a fourth dimension, and for skeptics of biodynamic, I only have to say, “line them up” in a blind tasting, be honest, and if you have a palate and the ability to think and write intelligently, you’ll be likely to see the most complex and rewarding wines as those with some element of native yeast or biodynamic application. Organic is generally problematic in the humid East, but in Ontario, there is much less humidity than on the Atlantic Seaboard, and it may be possible to be sustainable there, though it’s still a risky proposition.
Anyway I digress. Here are my favorites from Tawes Winery:
- Quarry Road Gewurztraminer 2011 VQA Vinemount: Lovely lychee and rosewater nose. On the palate, huge apricot bursting with ripe fruit, white flowers and tangerine rind. 12.5% alc. But 1.5% R.S. Very impressive but pricey ($30)
- Chardonnay “Robyns’s Block” 2010 Twenty Mile Bench VQA. Made from 30 year old vines, aged 12 mos. In French oak. Nose: huge oakey malolactic/butterscotch. Palate: round, rich, depth of lemon/almond, but with firm acid balance. Rich, but a world-class New World style; still young.
- Cabernet franc 2008 “Van Bers Vineyard” VQA Lincoln Lakeshore: Nose: subtle berry and spice hints. Palate: round, juicy, vibrant, lovely ripe black fruits and pepper. Drinking well, rich and almost warm climate without coarse tannins, but great balancing acidity. Showing the East’s potential to re-define world class cabernet franc as Marlborough did for sauvignon blanc.
- Cabernet franc 2009 “Grower’s Blend” VQA Niagara Peninsula: Nose of black pepper, rose and red and black cherries, also black raspberry. Palate: bursting with ripe black raspberry and black pepper. Vibrant and balanced, will age. French oak only used, w. 20% new.
Tawes Winery makes 30,000 cases which are mostly sold in restaurants, and has 200+ members in its wine club.
The Great Northern Wine Tour, Summer 2012 Part 1: Northern Michigan
I think we can all agree it’s been beastly hot this summer. Some poor b____ards lost their AC after the Derecheo came busting through a number of states in early July, and had to stifle in 100+ F heat for 10 days or more until they got relief.
Myself, I made a discreet exit to the north country, starting with the Leelanau Peninsula of northern Michigan…only to be greeted with 96 F heat, no doubt the revenge of the poor b____ards who had lost their AC and resented all the rest of us trying to escape it all. So, let’s call it even all around, OK??
So Michigan in general, and Northwest Michigan in particular, is classic riesling country. However, I’m pleased to report that they have diversified well since I first tasted wines from the region when I attended the annual conference of the Society of Enology and Viticulture, Eastern Section in 1998. Riesling is even better, but the aromatic white category has diversified. I’m most impressed by pinot blanc (lemony, bright and zesty), pinot noir rose (not table wine, but Charlie Edson does well) and pinot auxerrois (explained later).
I love the regional bus tour before the formal meeting, because I can get current with the host Eastern wine region, schmooze with a bunch of people I need to catch up with, and it’s relaxing since I’m not organizing it.
The bus tour was sponsored by the Leelanau Vintners Association. It was surreal in that we were driving around a place famous for snowmobiles, at 45 degrees latitude, and it was 95 !#@$ degrees. “Where the hell am I?!” I felt like I was still in Virginia.
Our first stop was at Shady Lane Vineyards. We went to the vineyard with lots of sandy soil, then to the winery where Adam gave us samples of riesling sparkling wine, and memorable “frank and frank” which is cabernet franc blended with “blaufrankisch” a k a lemberer. This was a wine with lots of plum and cherry flavors, a hint of smoke and bright acidity without too much oak. Great for summer sausage and barbecue, slightly chilled.
Next we went to Willow Vineyards, with a winery so small (“how small was it?”) that it could fit in a garage made for two big-ass SUVs. The pinot noir rose was rocking, and the pinot gris very spicey and racy with acidity. They have a south-facing site….take it from me! I pity the poor b____ard who has to work the vines sloping down at 30 degrees in the heat we had to deal with.
[Note: thanks to the bus company for running the air conditioning, and to Paul Jenkins of MSU, the wine and grape "integrator" ("I'll be back") for organizing the tour.}
It was interesting to see a non-linear (i.e. curving) terraced vineyard rows while driving into Black Star Farms. We tasted fine sur-lie non-oaked chardonnay, riesling and impressive pinot noir and cabernet francs, as well as memorable poire williams eaux-de vie. Black Star makes some of the best reds in Michigan. The 2007 cabernet franc was a fine varietal example, with lots of black cherry and black pepper.
Larry Mawby of the mysteriously-named L. Mawby Vineyards specializes in sparkling wine. Interestingly, it's partly a business sustainability issue. If you farm your vineyards for sparkling wine production (a k a grapes that are underripe for table wine production) you're more likely to get a reliable crop year in and out in this northern growing region).
I like the segmentation in his sparkling products. He's done a fine job with "Green", referring both to his sustainable farming and to the classic Vinho Verde model. This wine is not Methode Champenoise/Classic; it's artificially carbonated, but is made with cayuga and other grapes to bear a striking resemblance to the Portuguese model of light, low alcohol, dry and mineral/zesty white wine. Great job, Larry!
His Blanc de Blanc is a chardonnay in the m. champ. style, while his cremant cuvee is a fun, fruity/zesty wine made from the hybrid grape vignoles, which gives you juicy pineapple on the nose, and also on the palate with matching zesty and bracing acidity! Very fun and different from the methode champenoise model, with lots of great fruit/acid balance and juiciness.
Mawby's "Talisman" is classic, even though it's made with a blend of vinifera and hybrid grapes. Talisman has something like a 25-30% blend of older vintages as they do in Champagne but the high proportion of older reserve stocks makes it complex and unique in the U.S.
Next we went to Chateau Fontaine, with one of the highest vineyards on the Leelanau Peninsula. I remembered Ch. Fontaine from 2008 when I came to Traverse City to participate in a riesling promotion; their 2005 riesling was excellent. Now, I re-visited their fine riesling but was just as impressed with a pinot noir rose, and by some other white wines.
We ended the afternoon at Bel Lago Vineyards owned by Charlie Edson, formerly of MSU. Aside from his attractive yet capricious mistress (pinot noir), he makes a fine pinot blanc, and even better auxerrois, an obscure grape from Alsace and Luxembourg. This grape has lively grapefruit nuances but a broad, smooth texture unlike the edgy rapier-like sauvignon blanc, so it has a whole different effect. There's a lot of potential in this terroir for this obscure grape.
We walked a half mile from the winery down to Charlie's spot on the lake where we enjoyed an early evening roast, enjoying more wines including his Bel Lago Red, a red Bordeaux blend with a punchy addition of a German hybrid called Regent, that adds a lot of black pepper and tannin; fun stuff.
That evening there were no official activities in an attempt to enable everyone to last the next few days.
The next day was the start of the student paper presentation at the American Society of Enology and Viticulture, Eastern Section, and some were brilliant, though most of them I couldn't understand. So, I went with Oliver "the Jolly German" Asberger (a former viticultural consultant in the area now relocated to my neck of the woods) for an impromptu tour of the nearby Old Mission Peninsula (odd name for a place far from Spanish place names in the North Woods). We were surprised to find that although it was a Tuesday afternoon, it was hard to get to the tasting bar in every winery we visited; the places were packed! Great for regional tourism, but not so great for us.
Fortunately I prevailed on Oliver to pull his industry credentials in Bry's Estate to get us a private tasting with South African winemaker Coenraad Staasen. Although we'd given him no warning, he was very hospitable. Although the aromatic whites were fine, I was most impressed with his Burgundian-like chardonnay (excellent balance of lees and acidity and pear-like fruit), and his two excellent reds, both from the great 2010 vintage; a merlot and a cabernet franc.
Most Michigan reds I've not been so impressed with but these were exceptions, especially for the plump and seductive depth of ripe fruit and smooth velvety texture. I'd like to see these wines in international competitions. Also, they were not over-oaked. Thomas Jefferson once described the Little Scotland Valley of northern Loudoun County (Virginia) as being worth a trip across the Atlantic (in those days!) I think the 2010 reds of Brys Estate are worth a trip east across the continent for West Coast wine connoisseurs.
That night it was fun watching Hans Walter-Peterson of Cornell and Fritz Westover of Texas AgriLife Extension Service acting as "Hans und Frantz" for the mirth of graduate students and professors alike at the ASEV/ES cookout. There were teams of graduate students that competed for things but I can't recall details because I was competing for fewer remaining glasses of wine, but I can recall that a good time was had by all.
Rocky Mountain High: Wine Regions of Colorado, June 2006
I awoke at 4:45 to catch a flight via Atlanta and Salt Lake City to Grand Junction in Colorado, courtesy of the Colorado Wine Board, who had invited me on a press trip to the Grand Valley region in the west of the state where most of that state’s viticulture is based. However, despite a crystal-clear sky, this early morning flight out of Charlottesville was cancelled. I subsequently took the long route to Cincinnati, via a two and a half hour morning rush hour taxi cab ride, followed by a five hour wait at Dulles, followed by an hour plus ride in a plane designed for midgets only. By the time the plane left Cincinatti, twelve hours after I’d awoken, I reasoned I could have driven the car there with hours left over, and probably halfway to Salt Lake if I’d kept on driving. But it’s an ill wind that blows no good, and on the three and a half hour flight, even though it was packed to the seams with bums in every seat, I got to fly first class. A glass of wine on an airplane is always nice, even if served in a plastic cup, if it’s free, and not just a mass-market brand poured out of a mini-split bottle.
I fell into an extended conversation with another Irishman sitting next to me, originally from South Carolina but now living in Salt Lake City. It was fun chatting and drinking liberally, probably pissing off the righteous Mormon businessmen in the First Class section. He sincerely invited me to come to Salt Lake and go skiing with him and I hope to take him up on it.
It was a hot day and I was sweaty and tired but I was met by Nora, a cute intern in the Grand Junction Visitors Bureau, who, it turned out, had actually gone to Romania herself during a college glee club tour; small world! I was relieved to walk into the chateau of Two Rivers Winery and find that dinner was still being served. It turned out that there were only two other journalists on the tour; Jerry Shriver of USA Today and a full-time free-lancer, Deborah Grossman, another New Yorker. The other dinner guests included our host Doug Caskey, Executive Director of the Colorado Wine Development Board, Bob and Billie Whitham, proprietors of Two Rivers, Horst Caspari the state viticulturist, and a number of people from the local chamber of commerce and tourism board.
The hospitality at Twin Rivers was a great way to start the exploration of Colorado wines. They only make a caberent, merlot, chardonnay, and riesling supplemented with a caberent port, but the wines have a consistent high quality. The riesling was (typical for Colorado it turned out) very much in the Finger Lakes style; 11.5% alcohol, 2.5% RS, lively delicate peach/apple fruit and clean, racy acidity. The cabernet was surprisingly supple and approachable albeit with fine-grained tannins and drank like a Stag’s Leap district cabernet, quite an achievement for a cabernet from anywhere. The port was smooth and fruity, not too spirity. The dinner was outstanding; the winery is equipped with a catering kitchen, but I didn’t have the heart to tell them I’d crammed a hamburger in the SLC airport between flights, not having faith I’d get any dinner otherwise.
Wednesday began with a dramatic view out the south window to the towering plateau of the National Monument mesa, with the moon setting just above it; I grabbed my camera and got a shot with vineyards in the foreground before the moon set behind the mesa.
It was a hot day so I brought a wide-brimmed hat and a thermos of cold water. First we went to the Grand Valley Viticultural Research and Experiment Station where Hors showed us their vineyard and talked about viticulture in Colorado. The main challenges in that state are high soil pH and salinity, vine dessication over winter due to low soil moisture content, and sudden cold spells in fall before vines go into senecense, especially for varieties like syrah that don’t go dormant for awhile. He’s got 30 varieties under cultivation including Norton.
Our first tasting visit was Gray Cliffs in the Grand Valley AVA, near Grand Junction in the west of the state. It was a delightfully charming little winery with a niche specialty in ports. The white port, dubbed “Lippizaner”, is very unique; made from pinot gris picked near 30 Brix, given skin contact, then stop fermented with high-proof spirits around 11 Brix. The wine is spicy and intriguing, reminding one of Rutherglen muscadelle but lighter and fresher. The regular port done in a traditional ruby style is cabernet/merlot and the ’01 version won a double gold in our IEWC this year. It had a fine traditional style;mellow and smooth but good palate weight without being hot or coarse.
Next, we drove to neighboring Grande River Winery just off I-70. The (then) owner Stephen Smith, a gas and oil producer, realized there was a shortage of grapes in the state and consequently planted two vineyards, which supply many local wineries. The vineyard by the winery is 50 acres, about a third merlot (he’s bullish on the variety), with other Bordeaux varieties red and white, and some chardonnay. He also has another vineyard which is planted to Rhone varieties.
We tasted through a range of his wines over appetizers. The most impressive were a white meritage, with the Semillon giving an Australian style of grapefruit waxiness; his red meritage, which was dominated by cabernet franc and very elegant, drinking like a good St. Emilion.
After Grande River we left the Grand Valley heading east, driving past Canyon Wind Cellars at the mouth of the valley, and climbed gradually up the Grand Mesa, with breathtaking views of the hills and valleys that went on for miles. The terrain changed from scrub brush to aspens mixed with evergreens. Finally we reached Mesa Lakes, a state park with a few small lakes interspersed between rest stops and picnic tables.
Lunch was original and inspired; Colorado fruit wines with deli sandwiches and fruit dip. The air was brisk but the sun was bright and a gusty wind was welcomed for keeping the fat mosquitos at bay. The setting was a graphic illustration of being in Colorado and not California or some other place. Parker Carlson of Carlson Vineyards (who won the Riesling Championship in 2004) had joined us. The best fruit wines were his cherry wine (mellow and smooth), Mountain Spirit blush (highly original blend of apple, pear and raspberry), and a pear wine from St. Kathryn Cellars. I made sure Doug got a group photo of us with a mountain and lake in the background.
Descending from around 10,000 feet heading south into Delta County, it got hot, and we got groggy and sleepy. We had to pass one winery to stay on schedule. By the time we arrived at Jack Rabbit Hill winery, it felt dream-like; a scrub country dotted with large trees that were tapping subsurface groundwater, resembling what I though a lot of Australia might look like, but pretty empty country between mountain ranges. The wind was gusting 30-40 mph, but we welcomed it because it was so hot and dry.
Lance Hanson the proprietor met us and took us into his separately bonded distillery, showing us a neat Holstein still that had a copper top but also had rectification columns to process faster and more efficiently than a regular alambic still. In addition to half a dozen table wine labels, he produces as many labels of eaux de vie.
Hanson was a colorful figure, having retired from the software sales business and wanting to move back to the land (from California). Articulate and animated, he nevertheless had a gleam in his eye and a smile that reminded you a bit of Jack Nicholson, accentuated by the barren landscape and remote location. He and his wife Anna built their house and planted a vineyard, so far the only certified organic vineyard in the state. He’s also in the process of becoming biodynamic certified.
Tasting is believing, and in tasting his wines, it was clear that something in the organic/biodynamic process was producing wines of almost piercing purity and intensity of flavor. The alternative philosophy of Jack Rabbit is echoed in the funky folk art style labels and witty product names like “Upper East Side”. The unoaked chardonnay was unique; with an intense aroma of fresh pear, and a bracing acidity with lingering pure pear nuances on the palate. His next wine was a very successful blend of chambourcin and cabernet franc, “Red Barn Red” His riesling was racy, lean and fresh.
The spirits were interesting and worth the drive through the dry hot countryside. First was a mistal, a traditional French blend of apple juice and distilled brandy, which was fruity and strong. The Williams pear eaux de vie was clean, bright and fresh, crisp and dry with pure pear flavors. The peach was broader on the palate but equally clean and true flavors. A cabernet franc eaux de vie was not my favorite though it did have typical plum notes in the nose. My favorite was the “Lone Eagle” riesling grappa, literally the spirit of good riesling; racy, brilliant, flinty, with peach and apple flavors and increadibly bright, taut and lingering finish. The oddest product was a grappa with organic Ethiopian coffee beans added; I didn’t care for that much either. Hanson certainly personifies the rugged individual spirit of the Colorado Wine Industry today.
We drifted down the road feeling no pain, heading east into the looming mountains of the West Elks AVA, which was getting noticeably greener by the minute, with large cottonwood trees, alfalfa fields and orchards. We checked into our B&B with only half an hour to change and shower before heading to the Flying Fork restaurant for dinner with the local winemakers of Delta County and the West Elks AVA.
Delta County and West Elks are higher elevation and consequently cooler with a shorter growing season than the valley floor Grand Valley AVA. Accordingly, the best cool climate fruit in the state is coming out of West Elks, with Chablis-like lemon flinty chardonnays, Finger Lakes-like rieslings, and Burgundian pinot noirs.
The dinner at Flying Fork was memorable, not just for the food. The local community of West Elks growers and winery owners are an electic but close-knit group whom one member describes as an “expat community.” They share a lifestyle in the area that involves good food and wine, great outdoor activities, and lots of socializing. A wine tasting club has grown to over 200 members, who host tastings once a year while everyone brings a bottle, their own glassware and a dish to share.
The combination is a group of growers and winemakers who are looking for a particular pioneer lifestyle, and although very much individuals, are also a community, avoiding the jealous posturing and politics of many other wine regions. Barb and Mike, growers/owners of Slate Point Vineyard are a good example. Their vineyard supplied the state’s first pinot gris, which was vinted by Two Rivers winery into an elegant yet crisp wine reminiscent of Oregon. The fruit is a bit restrained (bottled four weeks ago) but the texture is creamy and crisp at the same time. “This valley is a great place,” enthuses Barb. “We have a slow food chapter here, colleagues in the industry that support each other, and lots of local farmers raising great produce and farm products making for great wine and food opportunities.”
Joanna and Yvonne Leroux are a fun couple. She’s from New York City, he’s from alpine France. “He’s one of the few Colorado vineyards growing French hybrids (Cayuga and Chambourcin), but bought some chardonnay fruit before his own vines were yielding. The fruit was from the Rodgers Mesa vineyard in West Elks. The result is a brilliant Chablis-style chardonnay, crisp and racy lemon and flint. He was honored by the reference, as the Chablis style was his intent. He not only has a passion for wine, but also for the chambourcin grape. We talked about Dick Naylor in Pennsylvania; he called him on the phone for advice on growing Chambourcin and the generous Naylor complied. I couldn’t help thinking of Mike Fiore, the other champion of chambourcin; his Latin sensibility and good-nature would make him and Yvonne instant friends, especially with the chambourcin link.
Yvonne’s other wine was a fascinating chambourcin port, infused with cherry leaves (an alpine family recipe). He points out that the inky chambourcin has no problem getting color on his site; I explained that the variety is very light-sensitive and that the high UV radiation at over 5,000 ft. of elevation must really help. The port was seductive and haunting, with spicy black cherry and truffle nuances over big black cherry and chocolate flavors.
The fun-loving nature of this West Elks couple is demonstrated by a whimsical frog on the label, a reference to Yvonne’s French background. On the “Apres Vous” port, there’s even a female frog with big lips, a thinly disguised allusion to Joanna. “People said we shouldn’t put a frog on the label, like it would be insulting to Yvonne, but it was his idea,” she explains. “We want people to have fun with our wines,” and why not?
Alfred Eames is a laid-back West Elks community member, making small amounts of fine chardonnay, pinot noir and red Bordeaux blends. The chardonnay demonstrated the same racy Chablis-style seen in other local chardonnays. Eames’ 2004 pinot noir was a fine introduction to quality Colorado pinot, showing many style hallmarks of quality Burgundy; light ruby color, gentle nose of earth and cherries, no obvious sweet new oak or high alcohol (all processed in open top fermenters and finished in neutral French oak). The style is something like a Cote de Beaune not as intense as Pommard, like a village level Beaune or Savigny les Beaune. Rarely, Eames’ Burgundian grape efforts are more successful than those with the red Bordeaux varieties; one bottle of his “ménage a trios” was corked, and another cabernet/merlot blend had some lifted ethyl acetate and VA.
Staggering back from the dinner, we decided to stop in at a colorful century-old local bar for a much-needed beer. The proprietress was anxious to show off her pool room, furnished with decadent Victorian era décor. It was a typical friendly encounter in the valley.
Thursday morning we visited West Elks AVA wineries. The first stop was Black Bridge Winery which originally began as a fruit stand selling the local cherries and peaches which the valley was famous for. Proprietor Rick and grower Lee Bradley explained that adding local wines was an afterthought and now accounts for 40% of business. In addition to their own label, they offer other local wines for sale that don’t have their own tasting rooms, like Eames and S. Rhodes.
For an “afterthought”, Black Bridge is making an impressive start in the Colorado wine business. The pinot noir was very similar to the Eames; Beaune/Burgundy style, with aromatic red/black cherry nose, solid fruit core, firm crisp acidity and no heavy-handed oak. The clone used is the Martini clone, and yields are around 2 tons/acre. The cabernet sauvignon 2003 had a vivid violet/ruby color, with a similarly vivid nose of bright red cassis and cherry. On the palate, it had smooth and rich tannins, with a bright solid fruit core. Tightly wound and young, the wine is young but a distinctive, exciting regional style. The cabernet franc however showed a bit of heat and the muddled flavor typical of warm climate versions.
We then climbed to Stone Cottage Cellars, at 6300 ft. elevation, operating near the limits of viticulture, with a breathtaking view of the West Elks mountains to the south, and the valley below. One of the most charming small family wineries I’ve ever seen, Stone Cottage is a husband/wife operation by Brent and Karen Helleckson with assistance from their children Stephanie and Jacob, farming seven acres of chardonnay, pinot noir and gewürztraminer, with a still-in-construction stone cottage of a wee tasting room with windows looking out over the vineyard, mountains and valley below.
Yields are low; “we aim for two, but sometimes get one and a half or one ton per acre”, due to low vigor and thin soil. A limestone subsoil helps retain water that runs in Chilean-style open irrigation ditches through the vineyard down the slope, but drip irrigation is installed just in case. They have a cave dug into the hillside which houses barrels, case storage and a bottle filling machine. Another Burgundian chardonnay (with more visocity and depth like a Pouilly-Fuisse) was followed by an ’04 syrah (not estate fruit), with spicy black cherry nose, rich and concentrated fruit and a spirity finish. More impressive was their estate merlot ’02 armed at 2.5 tons/acre; spicy basil herb plus red cherry with tight crisp texture, solid red cherry flavors and crisp acidity with good tannic structure; a successful cool climate style to age well. The most memorable and unique wine at Stone Cottage was a dessert gewürztraminer, late harvested at 28-30 Brix but still having 8-9 g/l of TA; foritified to stop fermentation at 11 Brix and finished at 18%. The wine was aged in neutral oak, and features intriguing bouquet of lychee, marmelade/orange rind, cardamom and vanilla. Flavors were typical gewurz with lifted acidity, bright and taut fruit and a vibrant lingering finish. He uses a terpene-releasing yeast (QA23). I bought one to take home.
Continuing a short distance up the road, we came to Terror Creek Winery, allegedly the highest altitude operating vineyard and winery in the Western Hemisphere at 6,400 ft., with proprietors John and Joan Mathewson. Winemaker Joan had lived in Switzerland and made wine in the dry Alsatian model. Where Wednesday had been hot, today was decidedly cooler and when we attempted an outdoor lunch, a blast of wind from an oncoming storm forced us hurriedly inside. We feasted on a salad of mixed greens, chicken, ginger and goat cheese, supplemented with a generous portion of their gewürztraminer ‘03, fully dry but with the spicy pungency, grapefruit flavors and long, full mouth feel you want in the Alsatian style (their riesling is too dry and alcoholic for me). Their pinot ’03 (14.5%) was also impressive; warm broad cherry nose, with a hint of hickory smoke, and a palate with dense, focused rich red cherry balanced with firm tannins and a crisp dry finish. It was finished in mostly neutral Alliers oak. This wine is far more Burgundian at its alcohol level than most of the Russian River and Carneros pinots these days.
We also got to meet Steve Rhodes, another colorful West Elks character who makes red Bordeaux varieties, blends, an unsuccessful gewürztraminer, and several pinot noirs including single vineyard labelings. We liked his single vineyard pinot most of all, which had an intensity and spice reminiscent of Pommard, but I frankly told him that the oak innerstaves he was using in his neutral French barrels were still masking the purity of the pinot fruit with a bit too much heavy texture. His fruit and winemaking are sound, and if he can back off on the oak even more, he may make the best pinot east of the Sierra Nevada. His red Bordeaux blend was good but I really liked his 2004 cabernet franc (from the Grand Valley), with solid spicy black cherry and plum fruit and smooth tannins. This was the best Colorado cabernet franc I’d tried yet. Rhodes was an immigrant from Marin County in California, and seemed to waver from being a real estate mogul to back country winemaker. According to the guide to Colorado wines, Rhodes intends to be remote and is only interested in selling his wines to “real wine people” which is part of why he’s not interested in a public tasting room; also he wants to remain small and probably cultivate a cult reputation. An articulate, intelligent and passionate winemaker, though.
After lunch we left the West Elks region heading east into the mountains, crossing a ridge at 8,500 ft. and descending into Pitkin County, home of Aspen. After checking into a dive motel (all the rooms were booked for miles around due to the Aspen Food & Wine Classic), we caught a breather and a nap, then dressed up for dinner in Aspen with a group of Front Range Colorado winery owners and other journalists.
We dined at a Pinons, a very good restaurant and had lots of good Colorado wines we hadn’t tried yet. Some of the best included: Whitewater Hill Vineyard (unoaked ’05 chardonnay and ’03 merlot), Trail Ridge gewürztraminer ’05, Winery at Holy Cross Abbey riesling (a skillful American blend) and reserve merlot with 6% cabernet franc; and the Stone Cottage Cellars ’03 West Elks chardonnay.
After dinner, the early tastings of the Aspen Food & Wine Classic were underway, and Deborah invited Jerry and I to crash the Wines of Spain tasting. Imagine my surprise finding myself a near-celebrity when I was introduced to Melanie Young, head of the New York PR agency that helped me get photos for the Spanish wine technology story I coordinated with Andrew Holod in the MW class. I also got to meet Senor Falcon, head of Marques de Grinon, who was mentioned in the article, and I promised to get him a copy. I was introduced to Kristin Naepaala who heads Wines of Spain, who knew I had coordinated the article and was much more polite than when I was soliciting her for leads on getting Spanish wineries to enter IEWC; and I was approached by account execs for Rias Biaxas the Galician wine region, asking if I was interested in doing a story on their region. Well….send me some Albarino and we’ll talk.
I found myself regretting not being able to stay for the rest of the event; the Food & Wine Classic had a festive celebrity atmosphere about it, and a chance encounter in one tasting had led to a lot of networking. But, I knew V&WM wasn’t interested in a consumer event, and I was getting wined out and needed some down time. But, I had the idea of pitching a consultancy to Kuvy, where they could get a grant from the state for me to get on the wine seminar program for next year, doing a tasting of Colorado wines, which would give them a lot more credibility and visibility, especially since Kevin Zraly had just invited me to be a regional editor for Colorado and other states for the second edition of his Guide to American Wines…
I left Colorado full of positive impressions of the great Western landscapes and fine local wines made by dedicated, passionate winemakers, hoping to return again.
The German Wine Press Trip, July 2006
Getting invited to do a five-day tour of German wine regions, at no expense to me, is like winning a contest for riesling fans on writing an essay called “nobody drinks better riesling than me.” I gave out a Homer Simpson “whoo-hoo!” when I got the news. Actually, I was invited by the account executive who handles the German Wine Bureau in New York, when I called his office asking for info on my article for riesling. In fact, great things happen when I write articles on riesling. When I contacted Kevin Zraly to ask for his comments on riesling for the same article, it led to a conversation where he invited me to collaborate with him as a regional editor for the second editor of his new Guide to American Wines, which I just turned in. In 1999, a tour of Niagara and Finger Lakes wineries led to a three-part series in V&WM; soon after turning it in, I was invited by Rob to work full-time for the company. There were six American wine writers on the trip; two from San Francisco (Charles and Angelina), one from St. Paul (Rob), one from New York City/Brooklyn (Joe), and one from Dallas (Julie) aside from me. The trip was promising and organized: we’d fly to Frankfurt, visit wineries in the Rheingau, then drive to the Mosel, then to the Rheinpfalz.
Getting to Frankfurt was an egregious fiasco worthy of comparison to “Planes, Trains and Automobiles”. I had a flight from Richmond to Philadelphia, then direct from Philly to Frankfurt. When I arrived in Richmond, on a hot, humid afternoon, I learned the flight had been canceled on account of thunderstorms. I was re-scheduled on a flight four hours later, but it was out of Dulles, and I had to drive like a fiend nearly three hours to get there. Then, the cops almost ticket my car while I tried to check my luggage, I left my boarding pass at the counter when I was told of the impending ticket; while getting the boarding pass, my lumbar cushion fell out of my bag, and then I saw it going through security ahead of me; by the time I got through, some rat had stolen it. I reached the gate with about two minutes to spare and no dinner; when I tried to board with my first class ticket, a German stewardess said in front of everyone, “you have a first class ticket but you paid economy, so we downgraded you.” To top it all off, somehow I lost my cell phone. I figured, things could only get better; luckily, I was right.
I didn’t really get any sleep on the flight, but didn’t expect to really. I was worried when I reached the “meeting point” at the Frankfurt airport 45 minutes late (nobody knew of my flight change) and nobody or notice was there waiting. After about half an hour, I heard a guy ask someone next to me if he was with the wine group, and was relieved to hook up with Joe Delissio, of the River Cafe in Brooklyn. Not long after, the driver reappeared (he had picked up the two San Franciscans and Rob from St. Paul but had neglected to leave a sign), we met Julie from Dallas, and headed to the hotel in Wiesbaden.
As Mark Twain remarked that the coldest winter he ever spent was a July in San Francisco, the hottest week I remember spending was in Germany in July. All Europe was in the throes of six week heat spell, approaching the scale of 2003, and no relief in sight. It was in the low to mid-90s the entire time, and as if driving around with half-assed air conditioning in a van, tramping around vineyards in the sun and tasting wine all day wasn’t exhausting enough, the hotels had no air conditioning at all, thanks to the thrifty Germans. They didn’t even have ceiling fans, and the windows are almost impossible to fully open. The only relief was taking cold showers. Luckily for me, I knew the European hotels don’t do sheets and blankets, but a fun combo version of down-filled comforters. This is great in the winter, BUT NOT IN A HEAT WAVE!! So, I knew enough to bring a sheet, but sometimes I didn’t even use that, it was so hot.
The temperature exacerbated tensions in the group, and we all seemed to revert to high school dynamics. There were six of us and three circles of compatibility; Rob and Joe rode in the back of the bus and seemed like the Hawkeye and Pierce of the tour. Angelina and Charles, the San Franciscans, sat together and gossiped in whispers like middle school girls. I would have enjoyed talking more with Julie, a friendly girl with a very good attitude about life, but she wanted to sit in the front due to dizzy spells, so I sat next to Ulrike, our very capable, organized, friendly and resourceful German guide, but somehow found it hard to be relaxed and natural.
The first evening we went to Schloss Vollrads, one of the great estates of the Rheingau, formerly owned by a noble family who had been electors of the Holy Roman Emperor. The Kabinett level of ripeness was first mentioned here in 1758. They make a wide range of wines, all from the same estate, and the stylistic variations are based on vineyard site and timing of harvest. The drier “trocken” and “halbtrocken” versions are popular with status-conscious German consumers who think that sweeter wines are only for girly-men. It was impressive to taste their “Grosses Gewächs” or “great growth” label, which was like a dry spätlese; richly extracted, ripe fruit but full and strong from higher alcohol, and excellent to match with the food we had for dinner. In a surreal twist, an excellent blues band was performing on the property, with a female singer who was belting it out impressively; it seemed incongruous for the setting
The next morning we drove to Johannishof, a small family estate with 50 acres of vineyards on and near the actual Johannisberg which was used as a synonym for riesling in the U.S. until recently. Johannes Eser, a friendly man who had worked as a winemaker in Texas, of all places, tasted us through a line of eight wines.
It was nice tasting the ’04 against the ’05 vintage. They are yin/yang contrasts; the ’04 being a cooler vintage with more subdued fruit and obvious minerality, while the ’05 is a richer, riper vintage. It was also nice tasting wines with obvious terroir from the spiritual home of riesling in the Rheingau; while the wines were ripe with yellow apple and white peach flavors, there was definitely a fine minerality beneath the surface supporting the fruit. I wanted to buy two wines but only had cash on hand for one, the Johannisberg “V” (vogelsang) Kabinett ’05, which had a classic minerality that Johannisberg is famous for. The nose had white peach with a hint of tropical fruit, delicate on the palate but fresh and fruity with a long, mineral finish.
We then drove up to the actual Schloss Johannisberg, through which the 50th parallel ran, and got a fantastic view from the summit. To the south the vineyard rows ran down the hill; more vineyards stretched on the flats to the Rhein river about a mile away. To the west, the Rheingau vineyards gave way to the hills rising above where the Rhein turned north, and where the Nahe region starts; across the river to the southwest was the Rheinhessen region. We also saw in the courtyard a statue commemorating the discovery of the spätlese in 1775. Being good Germans, the vineyard workers always waited to begin the harvest until they received official orders from the lord of the estate. In 1775, for some reason, the courier was delayed. The workers refused to begin the harvest until it was official. Their reticence led to the accidental, but fortuitous discovery of late harvest riesling. When the orders finally arrived, they picked the now shriveling grapes, but when the wine was tasted, everyone was amazed with its rich fruitness and the concentration the botrytis mold had induced.
We set off for the Mosel, taking a ferry across the Rhein, under the cliffs of the Rudesheimer Rottenberg, one of the few vineyards with a visible sign, and one that clearly evoked its name in the red shale soil.
We drove up the hills of the Nahe toward the Mosel valley, but the van transmission protested too much, and we had to abandon the vehicle. Fortunately, it was a short walk to a gas station (and fortunately for the women, a shoe store), where we were relieved to find the first air conditioned building in the country. It was also interesting to see how cheap the prices were for table wine in the EU. The Schloss Johannisberg sekt was only 11 Euros; there were wines for 2 and 3 Euros. How can you make money at those prices, I wondered.
Back in the van, we drove through forests of evergreen and birch, and I reflected we must be on the cold plateau above the steep Mosel river valley. Somehow, images came to mind of tanks, and soldiers advancing and retreating, in this land near the French border.
Our first stop was a kilometer or two beyond Berkastel on the Mosel, at Dr. Loosen. Fortunately, Ernie Loosen himself was there, though he seemed not to remember me from when he had
been keynote speaker at Wineries Unlimited in Lancaster a few months ago. He was engaging, sharp witted and intense as ever, and we tasted our way through his whole line of wines, served with a German version of pizza and a plate of excellent and varied cheeses. We started with his basic “Dr. L” kabinett-style Mosel riesling, all the way up to his Wehlener Sohenuhr ’05 TBA, which was mind-blowing.
Ernie is an outspoken traditionalist, but with his wild hair and big round glasses and animated style, has the comportment of a mad scientist, one of our group observed. He showed us a 19th century map that the British wine writer Stuart Pigott had uncovered in the estate archives, that showed all the vineyards of the Middle Mosel, with different shades for different quality grades, proving that in the past, there was a terroir hierarchy in Germany as there is in France. He says that everyone made wine the same way in the 19th century, and the only difference was the quality of the site, which should return to be the way wines are distinguished today.
Ernie had three educational aids to show us; the three major soil types in his vineyards in the region. The first was blue shale, for Wehlen and Bernkastel; the second was the red shale of Erden, in his Prälat vineyard, and the third was red volcanic rock of the Ürziger Würzgarten. These determined the subtle differences in flavor between the wines, he said.
He was however critical of the new terroir movement in Germany adopted by the VDP to use “Grosses Gewächs” for Great Growth, because of the stipulation that it only be used to designate dry wine. “You should taste the vineyard through the ripeness grades,” he says, and that means a Great Growth should be allowed to be sweet. He’s also contemptuous of the many winemaking aids on the market today; “If you get it right in the vineyard, which is the hardest part, why do you need all these gizmos?” They’re only there to cover up bad grapes or incompetent winemaking” he says.
Loosen wines are clean, pure and very expressive of Middle Mosel perfume and freshness. There are complexities; in addition to yellow apple, pineapple and peach, I also found red currants and herbs in some of the wines. As they got sweeter, it wasn’t like they tasted sweet, but more like all the elements got more concentrated and intense; the acidity
rose in direct proportion to sugar, as well as the intensity of fruit flavors, and I felt an amazing density and palate weight that wasn’t tiring because of the freshness of fruit. Here are notes for *two of my favorite wines*:
Erdener Prälat 2005 Gold Capsule Riesling Auslese (declassified beerenauslese)
Nose: delicate pineapple citrus, complex mineral notes. Fat, rich, dense, sweet but concentrated, long finish, the botrytis comes out in the acidity. Incredibly rich but elegant.
Wehlener Sohnenuhr Riesling TBA 2005
Only ten cases (minus one bottle!) Delicate, lovely nose of elegant botrytis riesling. Palate: fresh apricot, marmalade, 35% RS but acid is there, smoothly integrated balance and elegance. Rare experience of top quality and style. I think Ernie said the retail in the U.S. would be $250, and why not?
After tasting 15 of Ernie’s fine wines I was grateful to check in to the hotel, get a cold shower, and change my shirt, before we went back out in the heat to meet Johannes Selbach of Selbach-Oster, just down the street from Bernkastel. Johannes has a calm, deliberate manner, speaks excellent English, and is intimately acquainted with the myriad of details of his business, from the blue shale terroir of his Zeltingen vineyard to why screw cap closures are OK for some wines in some markets but not others (like the Japanese who have issues with the connotations of screwcaps).
First, he told us about his estate and his cellar. His house was wired for electric outlets and switches near the ceiling, on account of occasional flooding from the Mosel. Before tasting his wines, he took us for a drive up the dizzying grade of the Zeltingen hill behind the winery, until we reached a sort of flat place next to a shale outcropping. We were facing south over a 65% grade, with the shining light reflected up the steep shale slopes of the Mosel, and the black rock absorbing the heat; on a summer day in the ‘90s, it was plenty warm. A grand vista to the west showed similar steep slopes of staked riesling vines receding in the distance, with the tight curve of the river and steep slopes reminiscent of the Alleghenies.
Johannes showed us the hail damage from a storm that had recently passed through; damaged berries had brown circles where powdery mildew spores had begun to spread. He calmly estimated that he had lost between 30-60% of his crop for the vintage.
We then drove down to the base of the vineyard just above the river, where the found a crude staircase that we huffed and puffed up, back to where the van had been before. He only gets 1.5-2.5 kg (3.3 – 5.5 lb) of fruit per vine on this steep slope of loose shale; pickers only get $6/hour for their labor. He jokes that he takes tough customers who drive a hard bargain for a walk up this staircase for them to get perspective on the cost for making fine riesling in these conditions. It certainly gave us an appreciation for the patient husbandry of the estate growers of the Mosel.
Johannes’ wines were not as immediately appealing as Ernie’s, but had depth, nuance and complexity. Part of the reason was that he uses native yeast, like many other estate producers who believe this gives the wines more complexity. He also uses a blend of large neutral oak fuders and stainless steel, because the high acid and low pH of the wines, along the reductivity you get with native yeast, needs the micro-oxygenation from wood to round and smooth them out. The bouquet of his wines was frankly stinky, but if you knew that was from the native yeasts, you could swirl the glass and wait for it to blow off, and it was worth the wait, with all kinds of nuances of fruit and minerals beneath.
We went to a nearby restaurant and had a fine dinner, but sweltered near to death from the lack of cool air, even a ceiling fan, while enjoying Johannes’ wines. One of the more original food matches was a set of three different foie gras with one of his rieslings. He’s a generous man, and before we ended the evening, gave us a few of his wines to divide up between us. I was glad to score the ’02 Zeltingen Sohenuhr Spaetlese (dry), for the extra bottle age.
The next morning, we drove east, to visit with producers in or near the Mosel tributaries of the Saar and Ruwer rivers. The Middle Mosel wines have a richly elegant perfume and delicate ripeness, but the Saar and Ruwer wines add an exciting variation in terroir. It was impressive and somewhat dizzying looking up the steep valley slopes at the terraces
clinging on the loose shale above.
In the Ruwer Valley, we visited the penultimate estate, the Maximin Grünhaus, which had been one of the great monastic wine estates and was first mentioned in records dating to the times of Charlemagne.
The vineyard should be called the vine-mountain, for it’s an imposing, impressive hill towering over the river valley, with vines planted running straight up the slope. There are several sub-vineyards on the hill; the Bruderberg, named after the monks; the Abtsberg, named after the abbot, and the Herrenberg, named after the lord; they rise in quality and aspect accordingly.
The proprietor, Dr. Carl von Schubert, took us to a fine lunch in the nearby village, featuring sole in an avocado cream sauce, and amused himself by serving us older kabinett and spätlese wines and asking us to guess how old we thought they were. Nobody guessed these wines were from 1983 and 1986 respectively. Even with low alcohol around 8%, the high extract (dissolved solid matter) and acidity preserve these wines years after fat chardonnays have fallen apart.
Dr. Schubert took us in his Land Rover up to the vineyard, where we got spectacular, but somewhat dizzying views of the valley to the south; his estate with a swimming pool was far below, several hundred feet, and it looked like we were looking down a vineyard ladder from a helicopter. The view up at the vineyard from the estate was likewise startling in its verticality. The vines here have to be worked by a caterpillar tractor, as the slope is too steep for wheel vehicles.
It was a thrill tasting wines with Dr. Schubert. He naturally focused on the excellent 2005 vintage, and we went through the sweetness grades, all the while the wines retaining the light freshness and complex green apple minerality typical of the terroir. The highlight was the TBA (trockenbeerenauslese) 2005, which, although it was about 25% residual sugar, had a correspondingly high acidity, and also concentrated the minerality, so that it was intense but not crass, exquisitely balanced, reminding one of the quiet intensity of the late Beethoven string quartets. I realized that I’d never be able to afford this wine, and also that it would live as long as I am likely to.
The next day started cool but quickly warmed up. I was not in a pleasant mood after having spent the night stretched out panting on the plain sheet I had packed for that purpose, since the hotel had no A/C and the window only hinged on the bottom, opening at a 20 degree angle and no more.
We headed east into increasingly steep territory until we arrived at the town of Leiwen, home of the top-notch winery St. Urbans Hof, run by the family Weiss. We were met by the fluently English-speaking and urbane Nik Weiss, who told us of the variety of their wines sourced from Mosel, Saar and Ruwer sites. I asked if they were the Weiss family who had named the 21-B Weiss clone of Riesling, and he confirmed it, saying it was named for row B, vine 21, which was in fact right out the window. His father in fact had founded Vineland Estates Winery on the Beamsville Bench of Ontario’s Niagara Peninsula specifically to showcase how he felt this clone of Riesling could operate in the New World, and I had remembered it from researching my Riesling story for V&WM in 1999.
The most interesting part of the visit was his explanation of the Erste Lage movement, of producers from the VDP (German Prädikatsweine Union). The current 1971 German government wine classification, he explained (as had Ernie) is purely based on sugar must weight, with no consideration for variety or vineyard, which is the basis for the French AOC system. Research in 19th century documents had revealed a classification system based on the best vineyard sites, and the Erste Lage movement (copying the parallel movement of Grosses Gewächs first started in the Rheingau), was an attempt by producers to return to labeling and grading wines based on vineyard site, a pretty sensible system in a very northern growing region where aspect has a significant impact on ripeness.
Accordingly, he wanted to highlight wines from vineyards like the nearby Leiwener Laurentius-Lay, which could be seen across the Mosel, a sheerhill of green vines facing southwest to capture the maximum amount of late summer sun. Erste Lage wines are harvested fully ripe, then fermented to dryness, a radical departure from what Americans are used to with the higher grades of German wine always being sweet, while the inferior ones are dry. We tasted the wine, and it was intense; lots of fruit but also a solid mineral backbone with lots of acidity. This was not a sipping wine but would showcase a world-class meal, and also needed time to evolve in the bottle.
We then left the relatively cool Mosel river valley to head over to Deidesheim in the Rhinepfalz. The mountain ridges we drove over reminded me of the Appalachian Plateau in Pennsylvania, but it was sweltering hot and the mini-bus had not been equipped to cool a bus full of people in such hot temperatures. When we arrived in Deidesheim, it was hotter than it had been in the Mosel, and sure enough, no air conditioning was to be found again; the only way of staying cool was to shower in cold water until one felt cool.
We relaxed outside to stay cool that evening, drinking wine and sharing stories of our past. The whole dynamic seemed to be reverting to a high school outing with Ulrike, our friendly chaperone.
The next day we visited the impeccably neat vineyards of Lingenfelder, then the original Liebfrauenkirche in Worms, from which the ubiquitous Liebfraumilch was named. Friedrich Wilhelm, the proprietor of P.J. Valckenberg, explained that his firm is the oldest (and one of the largest) exporters of German wine to the U.S., and branded wines like Liebfraumilch are a big part of his portfolio. I was so grateful to his thoughtful wife for serving us chilled cucumber soup to mitigate the effects of the heat.
In the hot, sweltering van on the way back, a few of us, on the high school trip wavelength, started singing “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” by Billy Joel (“A bottle of white, a bottle of red, perhaps a bottle of rosé instead”). Three of us were really getting into it, when a passive-aggressive writer from San Francisco, apparently not enjoying the music or the heat, asked us to be quiet. Joe, a sommelier from Brooklyn, goaded him by asking “What’s that, you can’t hear us?” and we kept singing. The passive turned aggressive when he suddenly screamed, “SHUT THE F_ _ _ UUUUUUUP!!!” We were all shocked into silence until Joe skillfully segued back into humor by offering him some candy to improve his mood. Too much wine, too much heat and not enough flexibility can lead to ugly scenes.
Even after returning to the hotel, I walked down the street to the tasting room of the impressive heraldry and medieval grandeur of the Reichsrat Von Buhl estate. They were already serving a group, but I joined in and enjoyed communicating in German, buying an Erstes Gewächs (the system in the Pfalz) dry Riesling from a top vineyard, Forster Pechstein.
Fortunately for me, I was able to bring back a half case of hand-picked German wines from several of the estates we had visited, ranging from the ’02 to the ’05 vintages, by packing them in an empty gym bag I’d brought for that purpose, and loading it into the overhead luggage. This was only a week or so before Al Quaeda attempted their makeshift firebomb by way of hydroxide and something else disguised as a sports drink. From that time on, traveling with wine would be much more of a hassle.